Teaching Embodied, Mindfulness-Based, Emotional Resilience in School

This article is an introduction to my work with PreK-12 students, parents, and educators. My work is grounded in trauma-sensitive yoga pedagogy & praxis, neuroscience, and polyvagal theory upon which I’ve built a school-based curriculum, The Way We BE Together. Below you’ll find a bit of theory, some practice, things I wish I’d have known, as well as some of the joys I encounter. At the end you’ll find stories of positive experiences from the community.

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Over the last year and a half I’ve introduced students and educators in preschool through eighth grade to the concepts of resilience, mindful awareness, neuroscience, and polyvagal theory. We’ve put these concepts into practice and have experienced growth not only in self and social awareness, but also in self-expression, communication, and wise choice-making about what we decide to think, say, and do.

The glowing embers of empathy, compassion, generosity, kindness, and gratitude that were left after years of pandemic schooling have rekindled. And in the new light we are cultivating the physiological balance and mental clarity to engage with our emotions not as though they were dictators of our behavior, but as the messengers of information and self-awareness they are.

After learning about the window of tolerance and the hand model of the brain, students and educators now share a language that allows us to communicate more clearly and understand more accurately “what’s going on for us.” In other words, we understand what we’re feeling, why we’re feeling it, and how to express it. We know the ways in which our internal & external environments affect our nervous system, trigger our thoughts, and activate our emotions. We can more easily describe our nervous system state (with words, metaphors, and gestures), what’s happening in our brain during that particular state, and what we’re going to do or not do about what we’re experiencing. We’re also acknowledging when we need help, asking for that assistance, and then accepting the kindness, compassion, and generosity of our classmates, teachers, colleagues, and friends.

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We have lots of different ways to release energy, create a sense of safety in the body, and shift into a balanced nervous system that feels at ease and able to engage with others. To access this state at the beginning of class, children in preschool through fifth grade practice a spoken word movement poem called the Resilience Song:

Hands on my head, hands up high
Hands on my heart, hands out wide.

I can twist, I can bend
I can be myself again.

Like a mountain, like a tree
Strong & steady, being me.

– Amy Secrist

The movements go along with the words: Everyone brings their hands to the top of their head (sometimes tapping their fingers like little rain drops to help wake up the nervous system), then stretches their arms up to the sky. We rest our hands on our chest to connect with our heart beat, then open our arms to the side. We twist in both directions, and then everyone chooses to either bend forward in a classic back body stretch or to the right and left in a crescent shape, opening the sides of the torso. We choose based on what we want to feel and our comfort level considering who is around or behind us. We come back to hands on heart/chest embodying physical resilience. Following the words, we move through mountain shape (feet as wide as hips or wider with fingertips touching overhead), into tree shape (feet together and arms in upward “V”), and then into a shallow squat with arms and fists in a classic “flex” posture to engage the biceps, triceps, pectoralis, quadriceps, and hamstrings before returning to hands on heart. We usually cap this with a couple of yummy self-hugs beginning with arms wide to inhale, arms crossing the torso to exhale with sound (“Mm, mmm, mmmm”). We vary the arm position and add some rocking or twisting motions on the exhale, as well.

Younger students call the balanced nervous system state “Rested & Ready,” and the Jr High students like to use the phrase “Calm & Connected” to refer to an integrated and harmonized brain state. Both names describe a central nervous system that is settled, centered, calm, and alert, “rested and ready to work, learn, and play.” In this state students can focus on individual tasks or work with others in small and large groups. In short, the students experience this state as feeling safe and relaxed, able to connect with themselves and their classmates.

The Jr. High students are more reserved and “locked-in” to their older routines and habits that have served to protect and keep them safe over the years. So, no 7th and 8th graders really want to do the resilience song with me, and they are right to be skeptical. However, they do appreciate the brain and nervous system science, and when we talk about creating a sense of safety in the body they are willing to try variations of the basic exercises offered by Stanley Rosenberg. In short, we practice eye movements, turning the head, turning the torso, fuller twists around the navel, and then we add some squeeze and release, followed by shake, shake, shake (an opportunity to shake out the hands and wrists, arms, legs, feet, and anything else that feels right).

When I say “willing to try,” what I mean is that the students are willing to tell me whether or not the practices work for them. I ask them to please try things out, as if they are scientists or experimenters, and give me their honest feedback. No one is expected to like everything I offer, nor is anyone required to give “the right answers” to my inquiries, because there aren’t any answers that I’m looking for. I’m learning every single class period what works, what doesn’t, what can and what can’t. The students teach me every single day. And I’m doing everything I can think of to create an environment of safety and bravery, to foster a sense of agency in the students, to hold space for them – no matter how young they are – to discover, learn, and embrace self-inquiry and then to trust that deep inner voice of their own truest knowing.

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Considerations

One thing I wish I’d have known going in was that some classrooms will have a higher concentration of dysregulated nervous systems than others, much higher. And that this was not something I could just throw some regulating practices at and hope they worked. I had to speak with individual students, individual teachers throughout the school, get to know and understand the varied reasons for dysregulation, and then try out some practices. My expectations were something like, “everything will work at least a little bit, right?” I laugh at this now. The answer is “No, no, not everything will work a little bit.”

One brief example is the difference between lying on the floor to practice a body scan versus remaining seated and resting the head on the desk. Floor work is best offered to a group of students who have cultivated self-awareness, focus, and self-management skills. Another example is sharing in a large circle versus sharing in two smaller circles. The large circle sharing time necessarily takes longer, and if the group is not skilled in patience and self-regulation, it’s going to fall apart without a break time worked in. Even if something might work for a single student in a one-on-one session, that doesn’t mean it will work for that same student when they are surrounded by 22 other nervous systems. And what works beautifully one day, like mindfully listening to the rain stick, might not work at all the next. For these classrooms there is a lot of brainstorming, discussion, experimenting, and reassessing.

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Joys

One of the biggest joys of this work has been the inspiration and the student engagement and growth. So much of my curriculum is inspired by the students themselves. The resilience song described above was inspired in my first week by a preschool student who likes large motor activities and who was chronically tired. She loved dancing and jumping and rhyming. So, we created some rhymes and some movements and strung them together. She is still inspiring me.

The other huge joy is hearing how students are growing into freedom, which is at the core of this work. When students run up to share with me how they “Rolled With It” instead of “freaking out,” we all celebrate. When a student tells me how they were able to choose to walk away instead of scream at their classmates, we fist-bump and cheer. And when teachers tell me how the breathing practices reset the entire classroom vibration, we breathe a sigh of relief together. I have countless success stories tucked away in my email folders and survey responses from students, parents, teachers, and administrators, and each of them makes me smile and connect to my heart’s deepest calling – to walk with others in freedom.

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Experiences & Feedback

I have received positive feedback from students, teachers, colleagues, administrators and parents. Below are a few kind words that speak to the power of the EMBER practices I have learned from my own teachers, grown from, built on, and shared. To learn more about EMBER, please visit emberyoga.org

“I wanted to write to express my gratitude for the thoughtful practices you are teaching the students…, especially my own–…(K) and (4th). Each morning when they have your class, they will announce “it’s my day with Miss Amy!” and when they come home they are quick to show my husband and me what they are learning.

Most importantly, however, they apply their learning often in real world situations from the mundane–what were fights between siblings have turned into moments of mountain breathing–to the powerful–when they lost their grandmother two weeks ago, [My fourth grader] told me that when she became overwhelmed she would stand barefoot and focus on wiggling her toes to help her refocus on the present. They impressed their pediatrician with their knowledge of the different parts and functions of the brain, and they taught the nurse practitioner hot cocoa and balloon breath as they used both to calm down before receiving their COVID vaccine. 

In a time when so much of their socioemotional learning has been stunted by the unprecedented challenges of living through a pandemic, I am so grateful for the ways in which you have not only been able to increase their self and social awareness, self-regulation, relationship skills, and decision-making, but also for including us parents in their learning by sharing tools that, in combination with our faith, strengthen the resilience of our family.” 

– Dr. C. Parente, parent and professor

“This is my daughter’s first year in Montessori school.  Every week when opening her take home folder I couldn’t help but look at the [Social Emotional Learning & Resilience] papers coming home in total confusion.  What is she learning about the brain? What do these papers mean? Does my 3 year old understand this?

Then I was lucky enough to volunteer for snack mom.  I walked in as Miss Amy was talking to the students. It was a lesson about the brain and emotions. She took the time to prepare a craft for the class.  It was a jar full of liquid, glitter, and beads.  It was colorful and had all of the kids’ attention.  All the little bottoms were placed firmly on the floor as they watched in amazement as the bottle was shaken and became colorful with many moving parts inside.

She asked the class if they had ever felt a lot of emotions at once.  She talked about how it felt to be all jumbled up and [shared] exercises to help bring yourself back…to thinking clearly.  That moment there it all clicked for me as a parent.  The worksheets coming home might have a lot of wording on them, but Miss Amy knows how to break it down and approach children. 

On another occasion as snack helper Miss Amy happened to have a lesson. This class was about the “Window of Tolerance” and how when our windows are [open] we have a higher level of tolerance. She explained things that make our window bigger, [such as] eating right, doing nice things for others, sharing love. Those are things that [open] our window. She explained the importance of having a big window of tolerance so things aren’t annoying.  

She went around the room, each little learner holding the talking stick and speaking for their turn.  Each child gave an adequate example of a time their window was big and open (a happy example) or a time when their window was tiny and closed (a time they were upset).  

The children all understood and gave real examples, typically times when someone was bothering them and when mom or dad stepped in to help and made their window REALLY BIG AGAIN!!! 

It’s a privilege to be able to peek into these little lessons that teach our little ones such BIG things.  

Now every time a paper comes home in my daughter’s folder I just smile, I know under all the neurological jargon there was an amazing lesson teaching our children how to be patient, kind, and in control of their big emotions!”

– Parent of Montessori preschool student

“The students can [now] be redirected and use some of the strategies that they know. We have a common language and strategies that we can use [and] students are able to self regulate more…. [They] can have discussions between themselves and others when there are issues. We discuss different strategies and how we can be proactive rather than reactive.”

– Classroom Teacher

“I have had multiple parents tell me about how their students use the tools at home with success. Parents have also adopted some of the practices to the benefit of their family unit.”

_ Classroom Teacher

“[Without the resilience practices] I wouldn’t be able to stop and breathe and think about what I’m doing. I wouldn’t have any tools to help me.”

– 5th Grade Student

“I have come to the realization that I have the right to feel how I do. Another person may not agree with how I feel but it is okay for me to feel like I do. No one should tell you how you should feel.”

– Classroom Teacher

“I have heard from students, staff, parents, and administration alike how helpful this program has been. It has helped us create a sense of community and support where we take the extra time to truly talk about what is going on and what we do and don’t like about it. I personally feel that I have been able to be more honest with myself and my colleagues as a result.”

– Classroom Teacher

“I have used and applied many of the tools taught in the resiliency room this year. I use flower breath quite a lot when I’m feeling tense. I also use the balloon stress balls to fidget with when anxious or need to experience calm. My personal talks with Miss Amy have also helped me accept when I’m stressed, tired, or burnt out and apply the necessary steps to cope with these feelings. Having her help validate my own experiences and feelings was huge for me in getting through the school year.”

– Classroom Teacher

“There was a child in the hallway…who was crying. I approached this child and used the toolkit that Miss Amy printed for staff members and asked the child to point to how she was feeling. I then asked the child to choose their favorite breath from the poster. Together, we performed the breath three times and then I asked the child to choose how they were feeling. The child went from an angry face to a happy face. WIN!”

– Administrator

“[Through practicing resilience skills I’ve learned] that I don’t always have to be angry or get mad to get something I want. I can just calm down and wait.”

– 5th Grade Student

“…I’m getting better at resilience skills – I love understanding my amygdala and know that the power is in me…to be strong and steady and to do good and use the nice power in me.”

– 3rd Grade Student

“[I’ve learned] I can practice resilience. I can practice taking care of my anger.”

– 3rd Grade Student

“Taking a deep breath helps me when I make a mistake.”

1st Grade Student

“Allowing other people to encourage [me] and share positivity helps me be brave and strong.”

4th Grade Student
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2 Comments

  1. Patricia V mcginty says:

    I loved this! I shared with my granddaughter who has 2 little boys…yes, I’m a great grandma now! Pat McGinty

    1. Hello Pat! Thank you so much for sharing, and congratulations on your new family members. What joy!

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